SPIN-OFFS are notoriously risky.
For every one that works there are three or four that splatter all over the pavement. But if anyone has earned the right to take a risk it’s Breaking Bad genius Vince Gilligan.
The good news is that Better Call Saul, which landed on Netflix yesterday at the unholy hour of 7am, is more Frasier than Joey, the two examples at the extreme ends of the spin-off success spectrum.
Gilligan promised it would be a drama and that’s what he’s given us, even if there are frequent patches of the blackest of black comedy. The mixture of styles takes a bit of getting used to at first, but I’d like to think the sudden shifts in tone are more an act of design than a flaw. Gilligan doesn’t make many mistakes, after all.
We catch up with Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) in a lengthy black-and-white introduction set more or less in the present. Moustachioed, balding, hiding behind a visor and a pair of thick glasses, he’s working in a Cinnabon outlet in a shopping mall in Nebraska, kneading dough and sweeping floors.
This is Saul in exile, in hiding, constantly looking over his shoulder for trouble and twitching when a big, bull-necked guy seems to be staring at him. It’s a false alarm.
Back at his house, he guzzles Scotch and Drambuie and wallows in videos of cheesy old TV adverts for his legal services. Then we’re whisked back, in full colour, to Albuquerque in pre-Walter White 2001.
Saul has yet to become Saul. He’s still Jimmy McGill, a seedy, bargain-basement lawyer with a poky office in the rear of a very familiar Asian hair salon, scraping along on no-hope public defence cases worth $700 a pop.
His current clients are three teen knuckleheads charged with trespassing at a funeral home. Jimmy pleads with the jury not to destroy the future of these boys (“all near-honours students”) for one youthful lapse of judgment. Alas, the knuckleheads made the mistake of videotaping their “lapse of judgement” – namely, decapitating a corpse and having sex with the head. Case closed.
It’s a very funny scene, but the real frisson comes from seeing Jimmy – oily, yes, but with a spark of humanity still in there somewhere – gradually transform into what we know he’ll become, and from watching the superb Odenkirk flesh out a character who was essentially comic relief in Breaking Bad.
The inadvertent trigger for Jimmy’s shift to the dark side is his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), also a lawyer, but an upstanding and successful one. Housebound by a strange, debilitating illness, Chuck refuses to heed Jimmy, who thinks his partners in the firm Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill are screwing him over, and cash out his share in the business for the tidy sum of $17m.
Chuck suggests Jimmy change his name rather than “riding on someone else’s coat-tails” – a neat way of pushing Jimmy to become Saul, but also a cheeky dig, perhaps, at those who questioned whether a Breaking Bad spin-off was a good idea?
Gilligan also promised that characters from Breaking Bad would turn up in Better Call Saul. The first sighting comes early on when the car park attendant Jimmy argues with turns out to be none other than Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). The best, though, is saved until the very last scene.
When Jimmy’s plan – hatched with a couple of con artists – to scam a rich woman who’d spurned his services in an embezzlement case blows up in his face, he ends up staring down the barrel of a gun. The one holding the gun is nutjob Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) possibly Breaking Bad’s baddest bad guy. It’s an exhilarating moment that confirms Better Call Saul was indeed an excellent call.